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How can there be cultural Mormons when Mormons have no culture?

February 17, 2010

On By Common Consent (where, as I just found out, I’m still functionally disfellowshipped from the site), Scott had a post discussing the Pew Research data regarding lifelong Mormons and Mormon converts, and particularly with respect to levels of belief and activity. From there, he made some conclusions about the nature of Mormonism. He asked, and gave his own answers to, two questions. Here was one of his questions, and his answer:

1. Are disaffected Mormons more or less likely to self-identify as Mormons than disaffected Protestants, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc… are to self-identify as members of their respective (former) religions? What elements of any religion–Mormon or otherwise–are likely to be infused permanently into individuals and retained as valuable cultural tradition, resulting in self-identification, even in the face of religious disaffiliation?

My anecdotal experience leads me to believe that disaffected Mormons are less likely to self-identify as Mormons than disaffected members of other religions. In my estimation, the primary reason for this is that, once the theological weight of the cultural characteristics which help Mormons identify as a group are discarded, there is surprisingly little left in the way of uniquely “Mormon” tradition. For example, as pointed out and illustrated by Steve Evans only wee hours ago, we essentially have no liturgical calendar.[4] Outside of Utah’s Pioneer Day celebrations, there are essentially no unique holidays, feasts, or other culturally “Mormon” events to which theologically disaffected Mormons may bind themselves to…

When I read this post, what immediately struck me was my perception of the “shallowness” of these aspects of culture.

But then I quickly realized that it’s not that these indicators are “shallow” indicators. Instead, I’m just pretty messed up with a nonstandard idea of what culture and identity really are about.

I guess I can see how holidays and activities and whatnot might seem like the most visible things of a culture — and therefore, the best deciders of such a culture.

But in my mind, there is so much more to consider. And so we must.

What I wrote (good luck ever seeing it on BCC, haha) was:

I think that for people who become invested in Mormonism (I guess lifelong member might be more likely to do this), then there would be more likelihood to be “cultural” Mormon.

I think that all of these things about “jello” and “not drinking” and etc., are pretty shallow indicators of cultural identity. Rather, the investment is something more slippery to talk about. It’s about knowing that you are different, the beliefs of your “team” (whether you believe them or not) are seen as freakishly weird and cultish, you are on the defense because you will be challenged frequently (OK, so I’m describing non-Utah life too). To the extent of all this (and assuming that you don’t just collapse every time you are pressured — that’s why I said this stuff probably only happens for *invested* members) occurs, then regardless of your position with the church, you will *always* recognize that you can never be *non* Mormon. You can be ex/post/new order/former/alumni Mormon. But not “non-Mormon.

There are so many concepts that I would like to talk about my non-Mormon friends. So many life experiences that I’d like to talk about. But when I do, people just can’t seem to understand. I mean, I don’t care if they can’t or don’t understand the particulars — I don’t expect them to — but they don’t see to understand the categorical aspects of the experiences I’m talking about. So often, conversations about religion (or race too, definitely race too. Sexuality often times too) go completely flat — because we’re speaking different languages — though we think the symbols look familiar — and we can’t seem to translate.

I feel that to be a cultural Mormon is to understand certain experiences. It is to understand what being hated is like (but also to know what being bound together securely with your “team” — against the World — is like). It is to understand one day that “your team” is seen by the other (larger) team as “the enemy,” and it is to try to do all you can not to get squashed in the mix. Ah, the persecution complex, so to speak. But this doesn’t ever go away. After all, even if someone becomes ex-mormon or whatever, they don’t really join the “other team.” Rather, they fly out into a third team that, as it is in the middle of two opposing armies, sustains fire from both sides.

For example, let us take the so-called “angry” ex-Mormon. Contrasted to many non-Mormons who make fun or belittle or harass Mormons because of the perceived weirdness of beliefs or egregiousness of actions, if an ex-Mormon also came to see Mormon beliefs and actions being weird or egregious, they wouldn’t be non-Mormon critics. Rather, they would feel like family chastising family. Family getting in a family feud. Family becoming estranged from one another in a big fallout. A huge divorce.

But if you’ve ever criticized or harassed a family member for doing or saying something silly or ignorant, perhaps you know the feeling when someone outside the family tries to chime in with some more complaints. All of a sudden, you want to say, “Excuse me? You don’t know what you’re talking about. No one makes fun of my family but me.”

If a Mormon can internalize this battleground from his experiences, then I think the “scars” last forever, even if the Mormon leaves the church, realizes he doesn’t believe, or even stops practicing any Mormon habits. Even if the ex-Mormon breaks every law or commandment, the thing is that he can only do so after overcoming the hesitation from thinking back to old habits. Even if he or she can craft a new, “non”-Mormon life, image, and identity, always, the ex-Mormon will internally realize that he or she is one-sided. The other sides — the Mormon sides — are hidden in the past. They can never be eliminated.

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  1. Interesting and insightful post. I agree with you, I think it is nearly impossible for someone raised in the church (and for many converts) to move to the non-Mormon category, rather we move to the third post/ex/neworder/etc. category. I think this at least partly results from the close ties of culture and doctrine in Mormonism (as my wife unsuccessfully tried to dissect on her first blog before she realized they are inseparable), the category of culture too quickly becomes assimilated as doctrine in Mormonism. I think it also comes from the very restrictive atmosphere of Mormonism that ostracizes people who do not fit the mold of a True believing, TR-carrying member. It’s a very judgmental us vs. them society that kicks out those who lose faith but want to remain culturally Mormon.

  2. You have articulated some of what has been hovering on the edge of my consciousness lately. I had a chance to chat with a friend recently who grew up in Utah and has never been Mormon. We shared many friends and experiences, but I was on one team and she another. Having left the LDS team, I want to believe I am accepted on as non-mormon, but that is not quite true, from either those I know who have never been mormon or those I know who still identify as practicing mormon.

    Probably, a person who severs membership in the mormon religion will remain in a mixed sort of twilight zone unless there is a major location/relationship/paradigm change and sufficient time to replace those things with a different, more meaningful set.

  3. M. Curie:

    I’m interested in seeing how things might change in the future. Since I can see both sides of the argument…on the one hand, keeping in cultural members keeps families together, preventing all the stress and identity crisis would be beneficial to the church. But the church also has prerogative to encourage full belief. Nonbelievers, even well meaning ones, can be a risk.


    Thanks for the comment. I used to think that ex-members could fully leave the twiligt zone…but what I am also finding is that even when you have new thoughts, new beliefs, a new community, you always have HISTORY. Even when I don’t share that history, I know that I’m hiding that part of myself.

  4. Peter permalink

    I am a Mormon convert of about 35 years. The group I used to belong to had very low moral standards compared to the church. During a long investigative period I met a guy who was becoming part of our group. He was a returned missionary who had fallen away and was accepting the low strandards. Having myself decided to join the church, we talked a little bit. He talked about how he once believed. I remember feeling uncomfortable around him because of his drop in standards. It almost felt scary that someone would fall so far. It felt like he belonged with the church, not with us.

  5. I think your points about Mormon “culture” running deeper than holidays, jell-o, not drinking, etc., are exactly right. It is this sense of being different and apart, as well as a set of shared experiences. Obviously it’s going to be different in the US than in other countries, but with correlation and the church’s efforts to be as homogeneous as possible–same lessons/materials, music, procedures, etc., everywhere you go–there is certainly enough shared experience to have a culture that transcends the Intermountain West. It only makes sense that lifelong members would be more entrenched in this culture than converts, and people who bought into the church for a time and then opted out are not necessarily as invested, emotionally/psychologically, as people who grew up with it.

  6. Peter:

    Sorry to hear about your friend, but couldn’t someone have high moral standards outside the church…or even better, leave the church to uphold their higher moral standards? Could it also be that standards aren’t set in stone, and that what one person considers standards could be irrelevant to another person, but that what one considers to be irrelevant could be highly prized by another person?


    Great summary. However, as I’ve talked with others who have lived elsewhere (as a military kid, I kinda identify), precisely BECAUSE of correlation, it’s not as different in other countries as it is in the US. Really, I think the major difference is between Utah and non-Utah. what some people call “the mission field” or whatever. So I think a lot of people want to say that Mormon culture is Intermountain West culture, but that’s not quite right.

    While my instinct is to agree with you that lifelong members probably are more entrenched than converts…I can think of some lifelong members who are also, say, lifelong inactives…and several converts who really jumped in and got immersed in everything.

  7. I grew up in the church, my family are are active members of the church, and just because I don’t believe and just because I have decided to stop going, how on earth could people assume it’s disappeared completely from my life?

    I mean, come on. I still know all the stories and scriptures and everything. And if someone starts talking about the Telestial kingdom I’ll know exactly what they are talking about. there are also buzz words that only mormons of some sort or another would ever be able to decode (i.e. all BOM names, in the world but not of it, etc.). And if the topic of church comes up in conversation with my family, I would be able to easily talk to them on their level, not like someone who has never heard of mormonism.

    It’s not like the Men in Black have erased my memory with their pens or anything.

    You never have a blank slate. 😛

  8. Hypatia:

    I agree with your comment 100%. The worst thing is that sometimes, it’s other members who assume that the church should disappear completely from our lives (and we all know the buzz words for that: “leave the church but can’t leave it alone”).

    I mean, when I have to explain to some faithful members WHY ex/post/former Mormons continue to talk/write/blog about the church, some people seem baffled by the concept that the church could be a deep part of identity.

  9. leisurelyviking permalink

    I really identified with your family analogy. I feel like I frequently end up criticizing the church to its members and defending it to nonmembers.

  10. leisurelyviking, I think that’s one of the most striking things I realized.

    So often when I was younger, I thought, “Nah, I can’t be a nonbeliever. I argue too much with nonmembers for the church, etc.,”

    But it was eventually thinking about that which made me consider further. I thought, “But man, I really don’t like being saddled with all of these questionable things that I don’t really identify with.” I started out by categorically rejecting any non-doctrinal source (e.g., if anyone brought up Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine, or the Journal of Discourses, or any random talk by BY, I’d just say, “That’s not doctrinal; that’s not scriptural.) But then, I met a member who regarded BRM somewhat highly, and pointed out that he was still a GA.

    And that’s when I began to realize that these things that I was just casting aside were part of previous generations’ revealed messages. If not from the prophet, then from other high-up people. And even now, there are disagreeable things, so we can’t just look only at the past (Prop 8 was a real eye-opener.)

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